Casanova’s Venice: Economic Fall, Popular Culture Rise

Based in part on a Smithsonian Associates lecture.

“Most people think historically of Venice during its apex, the period of the Renaissance.” Venetian born historian Monica Chojnacka chose Casanova for the title of her illumination of 18th century Venice because he was perhaps the most famous citizen of his era.

The 18th century is often described as a time of “fossilization.” Venice’s government became rigid, society corrupt. For centuries an important trading hub for everything from silver, copper, and tin to slaves, honey, silks and beer, links were challenged in 1453 when the Turks took over Constantinople and fully severed by 1700. The Republic, contrary to feudal times, was ruled by nobles who didn’t derive power from land ownership but rather business acumen. The city had been stable over 1000 years. Then, the bottom fell out.

Sala Maggior Consiglio Venezia (The Great Council) by Joseph Heintz (Public Domain)

Those born into noble families automatically entered the Great Council from which senators, procurers, and the Doge (head of state) were drawn. They held political and military offices and exclusively voted. It would occur to no one to suggest all men were equal before the law. The class had a privileged legal status but were also limited by mandate. Though suffering much reduced circumstances, a noble was not allowed to earn income by his hands because it would take a working man’s job. He was also required to dress in silk. “Nobles in tattered silk were frequently reduced to begging on the street. They did so wearing masks”- for obvious reasons.

Francesco Guardi- The Ridotto with Masked Figures Conversing 1793 (Public Domain

The Republic worried some might be tempted to sell votes. (Later, those desperate sold titles.) To alleviate a modicum of difficulty, housing of nobles was subsidized in Campo San Barnaba, where Katharine Hepburn would fall into the canal filming Summertime. The “fallen” but not destitute were called“Barnabotti” and retained their votes. Others were not so lucky.  

In contrast, just down the street was opulent palace Ca Rezzonico, restored by a nouveau riche family and now a museum. Chojnacka tells us it was equivalent to “a mcmansion.” One son married into an ancient Venetian family further cementing status. The Wedding Allegory (1758) by Tiepolo was painted on the ballroom ceiling. It shows Fame blowing a horn and Apollo’s chariot moving towards an older man who holds a banner with coats of arms of both families.

Salon of the Allegory Giambattista Tiepolo 1758. Paintings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice. Creative Commons

More nouveau riche arrived in the city. In order to garner what monies they could from new citizens, nobles began to set up lower portions of palaces as gambling casinos. Up till then Venice, like other Christian societies, had frowned on the practice. Masks were only allowed during Carnival (to prevent anonymous misbehavior), the 40-day period of atonement that ends with Mardi Gras and Easter. A traditional plague doctor’s mask, originally used to prevent illness by filling the beak with herbs, was adopted for the fete. Full facial masks were often worn to shield women’s reputations. In the 18th century, Carnival lasted months.

Plague Doctor Mask by Norbert Nagel (Creative Commons)

Venice began to draw not just the usual sailors, soldiers, merchants and diplomats, but tourists. Additionally, The Grand Tour became fashionable to well heeled, educated people who sent their young for cultural exposure – men alone, women chaperoned. Public entertainment took to the streets. An acrobat dressed as a Turk would slide down a rope strung from the top of a tall building = Flight of the Turk. Performance of this evolved to Flight of the Angel and continues today.

One of the most popular events was a Bull Run held at Campo San Polo. (These were eventually outlawed.) Bulls brought in from the mainland were dragged through the streets and corralled in an arena surrounded by bleachers. Dogs let loose on them nipped at snouts and testicles maddening the animals. Men entered the ring to taunt the poor creatures as well. Chojnacka aptly compares the so-called entertainment to Rome’s Bread and Puppet Circus. At the end, bulls’ heads were cut off and meat distributed to the crowd. Readily available seafood was for the poor, meat (which had to be imported) for the rich. Commedia Dell’Arte also exploded all over the city. Itinerant actors portrayed set characters in familiar situations, often improvising on general narrative.

Commedia Dell’Arte Watercolor 1857 (Public Domain)

A young Venetian named Carlo Goldini transformed Italian theater by writing scripts which gradually became the practice. Our host compares his influence to that of England’s Shakespeare. The Tearto Goldoni remains standing. Coffee houses serving chocolate and coffee, emerged as meeting places. Initially the latter was thought to be a sin “because of its mind altering capabilities.” Popularity won out.

Morning Chocolate by Pietro Longhi (Public Domain)

Now, some of the painters. Rosalba Carriera 1673-1757 became famous for intimate portraits created in pastel. She was invited to France to capture the royals. Giovanni Antonio Canal who went by Canaletto (1697-1768), was so popular, his paintings are displayed all over the world, though Venice itself owns few. The son of a set designer, his work was theatrical. Many commissioned what they thought of as souvenirs. Pietro Longhi painted everyday life.

Canaletto – Entrance to the Grand Canal 1730 (Public Domain)

Giacomo Girolamo Casanova was born to two traveling actors, though it’s conjectured he may have been the illegitimate son of a noble as one paid for his extremely fine education. Raised by grandparents until the age of nine, he was then sent to an appalling boarding house. The boy somehow managed to be placed under the care (and into the home) of Abbé Gozzi, his primary instructor. According to Casanova’s memoirs, Gozzi’s younger sister Bettina began fondling him at the age of 11.

The young man entered the University of Padua at 12, graduating at 17 with a degree in law he’d never use beyond some later years as a legal assistant. He was cultured and smart, at one point translating Homer ‘s Odyssey into Venetian. Casanova lived as a musician and a soldier, then by his wits gambling and traveling. Indiscriminate sexual escapades were, at least locally, “protected” by a patrician whose life he saved when the man was drunk.

The Campo and Church of San Samuele where Casanova was born (Creative Commons)

In 1756, Casanova was arrested for affront to religion and common decency. Books may have been planted at his apartment. He was sentenced to five years in “the Leads,” a prison of seven cells on the top floor of the east wing of the Doge’s palace reserved for prisoners of higher status. Casanova, second from left below left, is elegantly dressed in this engraving. He explains in History of my Life that when he was awoken and ordered to dress because he was to be brought before the Tribunal of the State Inquisitors, he, presumably out of nervousness, took his time to dress, shave, comb his hair, put on a lace shirt and his best suit (“mon joli habit”) without thinking or talking. The wealthy patron supplied enough money for bribes to secure special privileges.

Left: Casanova’s Arrest 1787; Right: Casanova 1750 (Both Public Domain)

Casanova’s memoir tells an infamous story of escape involving an iron bar he somehow brought to a point, then digging a hole in the wood floor. When moved to another cell, this was discovered. Undaunted, he communicated with his new neighbor, a renegade priest, by clandestine notes, then sent the bar (sequestered during the move in furniture upholstery) to the padre’s cell in the spine of a Bible. Because it stuck out, the prisoner made a big bowl of pasta (supplies provided by a bribed guard) topped with melted butter. He balanced the bowl on top of the book and instructed the guard not to sully the Bible. Attention was sufficiently distracted. A hole was dug both between the cells and through his neighbor’s floor. The two men escape to a gondola then carriage, Casanova first to Paris. Oddly, the wanted man returned home in 1756 only to sign on as a “piecework” spy for the very Inquisition that sentenced him.

The Memoirs (Public Domain)

He now had little money for gambling, few willing females worth pursuing, and few friends to liven his days. In 1779, Casanova found an uneducated seamstress who became his devoted live-in lover and housekeeper. He traveled again, but was away when Napoleon conquered Venice in 1789 without firing a shot, and prevented from returning home.

In 1787, Casanova wrote the very popular Story of My Flight, which was reprinted in many languages as well as appearing later in his memoirs.

Opening image: Piazza San Marco by Francesco Guardi (Public Domain)

Casanova’s Venice
Based in part on a Smithsonian Associates lecture by articulate, entertaining historian Monica Chojnacka
All quotes by the host

Check out more fascinating streamed lectures from Smithsonian Associates on a vast variety of subjects.  

About Alix Cohen (1433 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.